Is There Anything Wrong With the Christian Tradition? 

There is no question that there’s a lot of good in Christianity and that the vast majority of Christians are decent people (and those that are not are so not necessarily because of their Christian upbringing). However, I am concerned about the Christian tradition vis-à-vis the teachings about Jews. I feel that Americans in general should feel shame for slavery in this country and the treatment of black people until not too long ago. Of course this does not mean in any way that contemporary Americans are responsible for slavery or for the acts of their ancestors, but it’s something that I feel should weigh heavily on someone’s education. Germany has officially embraced this line of thinking by intensely educating all post-war generations about the deeds of their ancestors, which in their case meant their parents and grandparents. Maybe they were a little too extreme, but today in Germany people are ashamed of the past and is illegal to embrace and spew Nazi ideology, and to deny the Holocaust happened. This, just like in the example of the U.S., does not implicate young Germans in the deeds perpetrated by their ancestors, but it does weigh heavily on their education.

Gabriel Wilensky

So, to get back to the issue of Christianity, my point is that most “ordinary” (i.e. regular people off the street, not intellectuals) Christians today are probably not aware of what I believe to be a shameful background. I’ll go even further: I suspect most or a large number of ordinary Christians spend their lives reading the Gospels and never make the connection between that, and the Holocaust. They likely never realize that what’s written about Jews in the New Testament, and the way it’s written, can have a cumulative effect on someone. I’d venture to speculate that most ordinary Christians who feel a prejudice towards Jews (and they still exist) never make the connection, just like their ancestors during WWII and back through the centuries never made that connection when they went on a pogrom. Sure, the theological animosity so deeply ingrained until the nineteenth century is largely absent these days. Only some fringe lunatic today would express hatred towards Jews because he believes they rejected or killed Jesus. But in essence, the antisemitism they read in perhaps total innocence every Sunday metamorphoses itself into other, more acceptable channels. Antisemitism lives on, and in large part because its resurgence among Islamic societies rests on a Christian antisemitic foundation, one in which they borrow the imagery, the language, and even the tracts that were so prevalent in Christendom.

“Just like in the Middle Ages when popes repeatedly warned the Christian flock to refrain from violence towards Jews, while leaving in place the entire edifice of lectionaries and network of lower clergy who repeatedly told the flock the opposite, today we have an equivalent scenario in the form of scholarship that says one thing, and the sacred texts that say the opposite.”

I have no doubt that the vast majority of Christians today (i.e. post Vatican II) are of a very different kind than those of years past. And I’m sure that most Christians are more self-critical and reflective than how I am portraying them. But this is not to say that antisemitic Christians do not exist. Even the mere fact that Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” was made shows evidence of what I’m saying, not to say anything about the deep support it received from certain quarters. A Synod of Middle Eastern bishops issues statements which ultimately convey the message that Israel has no right to exist and in contravention of Vatican II teachings claim the Jews are no longer the “Chosen People”, once again raising the old specter of supersessionism. Bishop Williamson and others have been openly denying the Holocaust ever happened. How does a rational person say this? This may be extreme and fringe, but it’s not a unique occurrence. This irrational hatred that leads people to deny the Holocaust, or become members of the KKK, or neo-Nazis comes from somewhere, and that somewhere is tradition. I don’t think you can take someone raised in some remote island disconnected from civilization and give him an overview of western history in the twentieth century, and then tell him the whole notion of the Holocaust is a hoax, because that person will look at all the documentaries and the thousands of testimonies and documents and realize that there’s no way all that was false. Yet, quite a few people, who were not raised in a remote island but rather in a Christian environment, believe Jews were behind 9/11, that the Holocaust is a manufactured event the Jews use to control the media and/or the world, that Israel is the greatest danger to world peace, and who knows what else. There is only a semantic difference between those beliefs, and the beliefs that the Jews poisoned wells, were responsible for the Black Plague, that they conspire to dominate the world and to destroy Christianity.

How does a normal person succumb to such hallucinations? Could it be people are being exposed to the wrong type of influences? What can be done? Can the Christian Bible be literally excised of all antisemitism? I of course realize that a Jeffersonian job on the New Testament is not going to happen, at least not any time soon. But I am skeptical that the alternative path of scholarship and exegesis can mitigate the underlying anti-Jewish message of the Gospels. Not because it’s the wrong path (it isn’t), but rather because it does not percolate down to the mind of the common individual. Just like in the Middle Ages when popes repeatedly warned the Christian flock to refrain from violence towards Jews, while leaving in place the entire edifice of lectionaries and network of lower clergy who repeatedly told the flock the opposite, today we have an equivalent scenario in the form of scholarship that says one thing, and the sacred texts that say the opposite. How can we make the regular individual, who is highly unlikely to read any of the scholarship and exegesis showing what the correct reading of the lectionaries should be, go through life and go through hundreds of readings of those sacred texts in which Jews are portrayed so negatively first recognize and then ignore that message? I struggle with this issue because I realize the impossibility of a comprehensive rewrite of the Gospels.

I believe two things need to happen. First, education is of paramount importance. There has to be a concerted effort by ecclesiastical and government officials to relentlessly educate the flock about the pernicious teachings about Jews found in the New Testament. I know the Vatican and many Protestant churches have made huge strides after Vatican II in this front and they do indeed educate about this very thing. Yet more needs to be done. The Orthodox Church needs to catch up. Maybe the post-war German model is a good one. The other thing is at a more popular level. I think the way to make scholarship percolate down to the mind of regular individuals who seldom if ever read scholarly books is to shake them in some way. I am hopeful this small effort, together with that of many others, can eventually lead to a new Christianity, one in which the very many good aspects in it are distilled and extracted from the ancient body of teachings that also contain a very negative message, totally at odds with the central notion of Christian love.

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